Frozen Tower

Not long ago, observers watched for signs of forest fires from towers in the mountains.

More than 100 fire towers stood in the forests of New York before newer methods of fire-spotting displaced their role. A few remain and draw hikers year-round. The tower at the highest elevation of any in New York is on Hunter Mountain, 4,040 feet above sea level.

Hunter Mountain Tower and Cabin

In the first decade of the twentieth century, fires destroyed hundreds of thousands of acres of New York’s forests, forcing local residents to evacuate and darkening the skies near Albany. One of the state’s responses was an improved fire observation program.

The first of New York’s fire towers were constructed in 1909. Among them was the original Hunter Mountain tower, a 40-foot tall structure built from logs. The wooden tower was replaced with a steel 60-foot tower in 1917. The steel tower was originally placed a third of a mile from the summit of Hunter, but was moved to its current location at the true summit in 1953.

Observers were on station from April until the first snows, usually in October or November. During this time they usually stayed in a cabin near the tower.

There seems to be a route to the tower on Hunter from a lift at the Hunter Mountain Ski Area, about 2 miles of trail from the summit. But if you went that way, then you haven’t really climbed Hunter, and you’ve missed out on gaining a physical understanding of the mountain.

Becker Hollow Trail View

Darian on Becker Hollow Trail

As you gain altitude, snow gets deeper and more is frozen onto trees. Trees get smaller near the summit, and at the top of Hunter conifers dominate.

The relatively flat walk along the ridge to the summit had a concentrated winter setting.

Hunter Mtn Trees in Winter

The fire tower stands above the treetops.

Hunter Mountain Fire Tower

Climbing the stairs of the tower is not discouraged in any way, but do hold the handrails and prepare for windy conditions.

Climbing Hunter Fire Tower

The cab at the top of the tower was locked, though it might be open and staffed by volunteers on weekends in more temperate seasons. Either way there are excellent views from the stairs. Looking out, you can understand how the tower played an essential role in protecting New York’s forests and the people who lived there from uncontrolled fire.

Looking Out from Hunter

In the 1980s, New York’s fire towers were phased out of service as airborne observation took a greater role. The state officially closed the Hunter tower in 1989.

Most of New York’s fire towers were dismantled. A campaign to restore the remaining towers managed to save five of those in the Catskills. Preserving over a hundred towers might be excessive and detract from the wilderness experience, but there is no question that we can learn much about the mountains looking out from the towers that used to protect the forests and towns between the ridges.

View From Hunter Mtn Fire Tower


Catskills Trails: Northeastern, Trail Map 141. 9th ed. New York – New Jersey Trail Conference, 2010.

“Fire Towers of the Catskills: A Guide for Hikers and History Buffs.” New York State Department of Environmental Conservation.

“Hunter Mountain Fire Tower,” Catskill Fire Tower Project, The Catskill Center for Conservation and Development.

Podskoch, Marty. “Standing Tall.” New York State Conservationist, October 2009.

Strong Currents

You might have seen Paterson’s Great Falls in The Sopranos. But there is more to the place than a backdrop for a crime drama. A hundred years ago, Paterson became the center of American labor conflict when over twenty thousand silk workers walked off the job for months.


The Lenni Lenape had known the falls for years, but Europeans began to settle the area in the seventeenth century. Shortly after the United States won independence, influential citizens looked to the Passaic River as a potential source of industrial power.


In 1791, the Society for the Establishing of Useful Manufactures was created. With Alexander Hamilton in a leading role, and New Jersey’s governor and Federalist-controlled legislature backing the initiative, Paterson would soon become a center of manufacturing.

The early mills were powered by water channeled through a series of raceways. With gravity behind it, the water was able to turn the massive wheels that powered the machines. Here’s a diagram from the American Labor Museum:


The remains of the raceways can be explored not far from the falls.



The raceway system would be replaced with electric equipment powered by water-driven turbines from a plant directly below the falls. The SUM plant operated from 1914 to 1969, then reopened with updated equipment in 1986. It averages about 33 million kilowatts of electricity production per year.


Paterson’s silk industry began in the mid-nineteenth century in a mill complex near the banks of the Passaic River. A number of industries thrived in the complex at one time, including cotton textiles, steam radiators, and Samuel Colt’s first revolver factory, but silk weaving and dyeing became its primary activities.

Many of the 1913 strikers worked there. Unfortunately, after the complex was abandoned in 1983, fires destroyed the buildings and plans for restoration or redevelopment have not made it through the maze of city politics.


Another building the strikers would have known is the Phoenix Mill, built in the 1810s and converted to apartments in the 1980s.


The laborers and the owners of the silk mills both wanted to get what they thought they should earn from production. At the time, silk manufacture required skilled weavers to prevent damage to the delicate fabric. Many of the weavers were immigrants who brought not only their skills, but also the fierce pride and willingness to challenge the bosses that were typical of skilled artisans.

Large silkworkers’ strikes had taken place in 1877 and 1894, but nothing on the scale of the 1913 strike. Following the defeat of the 1902 dyers’ strike, which saw significant violence and property damage, the city’s business owners were able to take greater control of the local government and strengthen its police force under new chief John Bimson. Their efforts were bolstered by prejudice against Italians.

At the beginning of 1913, the Doherty mill introduced four-loom assignments, replacing the previous two-loom assignments. This meant that workers would be overseeing more machines and many would lose their jobs. The Doherty workers walked out. By the end of February, workers at all the silk mills in Paterson were on strike. 24,000 men, women, and children walked off the job. Demands expanded to include better working conditions and an eight-hour day.

Workers did not see themselves benefiting from technological advances that increased production.

As one striker put it:

[A]s a rule we never receive any benefit from improved machinery they put into the mills… It only antagonizes the workers the more, because they can see themselves that they can produce more under the improved machinery; still they get less wages.

The Paterson workers called on the Industrial Workers of the World for assistance. The IWW was emboldened by its recent success in Lawrence, Massachusetts and was enthusiastic about helping the Paterson workers.

On February 25, 1913, IWW speakers, including Elizabeth Gurley Flynn and Carlo Tresca, addressed a crowd in Paterson and were quickly arrested. A crowd of 1500 striking workers met them outside and followed the police escort despite being bludgeoned by officers.

The strike was run by workers through their elected Central Strike Committee, but many citizens thought that the IWW and its charismatic leader Big Bill Haywood were actually in charge, and furiously searched for a “responsible party” to deal with. Exactly how much the IWW leaders influenced strikers or led events is debated by historians, but their presence strengthened the resolve of workers and gained significant attention from outside observers. They also contributed their knowledge of organizing what would be a largely non-violent strike.


Worn down by hunger, by the ability of manufacturers to outlast them, by the continued operation of Pennsylvania silk mills, and by mounting pressure from police and private detectives, workers began returning to the mills in July after making deals on a shop-by-shop basis. The demands of the general strike were not met, but events in Paterson helped focus more public attention on labor conflict and prepared workers for future struggles.

The Great Falls Cultural Center, which has a lot of helpful literature, lists the strike among noteworthy Paterson events.


The city of Paterson was run by the manufacturers in 1913, but its suburbs were not. After police suppressed assemblies in Paterson, the Socialist mayor of Haledon invited strikers to meet in his town. One of the most significant meeting locations was the Botto House, where speakers rallied thousands of workers from the balcony and representatives of hundreds of shops met.


The Botto family arrived in America in 1892. They were a family of skilled textile workers from the Biella region of Italy. After years of hard work in American mills, they were able to afford a small plot of land in Haledon and build a house, which was finished in 1908. It served as a family home, guest house, and cottage industry while the Bottos worked six days a week. During the strike, the Botto house was a place of hospitality and free speech.


Today, the American Labor Museum resides in the Botto House, with permanent exhibits on the 1913 strike and a few rooms furnished with what skilled workers would have owned (unskilled workers had significantly less). A Strike Centennial exhibit will open January 11.




Harnessing the power of the Passaic River made Paterson a center of industry and a center of social conflict over how the profits of industry would flow. By exploring old buildings and the devices used to harness the power of the Passaic, the story can be better understood.



American Labor Museum exhibits and website. Botto House National Landmark, 83 Norwood Street, Haledon, NJ.

“The ATP Site.” Paterson Friends of the Great Falls.

Carlson, Peter. Roughneck: The Life and Times of “Big Bill” Haywood. New York: W.W. Norton, 1983.

Fleming, Thomas J. New Jersey: A History. New York: W.W. Norton, 1984. Pages xi-xiv.

Golin, Steve. The Fragile Bridge: Paterson Silk Strike, 1913. Temple University Press, 1992.
Quote from a worker about technological advances is from The Fragile Bridge, page 22.

“The History of Paterson’s Silk Industry, 1839-1945.” The Paterson Museum. Courtesy of Great Falls Historic District Cultural Center.

Paterson Great Falls brochure. National Park Service, US Department of the Interior. Courtesy of Great Falls Historic District Cultural Center.

“The S.U.M. Hydroelectric Project.” Historic Notes. Great Falls Historic District, Paterson, NJ. Courtesy of Great Falls Historic District Cultural Center.

“A Visitor’s Guide to the Great Falls National Historic Landmark District.” The Paterson Museum. Courtesy of Great Falls Historic District Cultural Center.

Evergreens and 2013

The practice of commemorating Winter Solstice with evergreen plants stretches back centuries. The tradition of celebrating Christmas with evergreen trees is believed to have started in sixteenth century Germany. While some early German immigrants put up Christmas trees in America, the tradition did not catch on for Americans until the mid to late nineteenth century. Prior to their general acceptance, Christmas trees were seen as an oddity or even a pagan mockery of a holy day.

While evergreen trees do make a living room look and smell nice, the best place to appreciate them might be on a frosty mountain like we saw in 2010.

Trees on Balsam Lake Mountain

Whatever you celebrate this time of year, Head First wishes you warmth and cheer! We will be back in 2013 with more mountains, more towers, more ruins and more adventures!


History of Christmas Trees,

I’m Dreaming of a Green Christmas (Tree), Scientific American

The Village Under the Park

A park usually improves a neighborhood. But what happens when your neighborhood is destroyed to build a park?

About 1600 people lived on the land that would become Central Park. The largest settlement was the well-established community of Seneca Village.


Seneca Village was first established in 1825 when African-Americans acquired property in the area. By the 1850s, about two-thirds of the village’s residents were of African descent, with most of the others being Irish-Americans. An 1855 state census reported approximately 264 people living in the community, which also contained churches, cemeteries, and a school.

The village was near what is now the 85th Street entrance on the western side of the park.

Mariner's Gate

Before the park was built, 85th Street continued another block eastward. This was one of the streets of Seneca Village. The Columbia University website has a map and directions that are very helpful in understanding the location of the village grounds.

Up the hill, part of a stone foundation can be seen sticking out of the ground.

Central Park - Foundation

Looking southeast from this point in 1855, you would have seen a number of homes. Today a park road winds through trees and grassy rolling hills .

Foundation in Central Park and SE

Often denigrated as “shanties” by contemporary commentators, houses in the village were typically permanent structures that offered better living conditions than could be found in many downtown tenements. They included cabins with multiple rooms and floors. Many residents also had gardens and barns.

Seneca village was bordered to the east by the Croton Receiving Reservoir, a rectangular structure with walls that rose high above the ground. The reservoir was drained in 1930 and the Great Lawn was established on the land soon afterward.

Central Park Great Lawn

The Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis Reservoir was constructed with the park and sits below ground. The southwest corner of the reservoir covers what was the northeast corner of Seneca Village.

Central Park - JKO Reservoir

The idea for a large Manhattan park emerged in wealthy New York social circles in the late 1840s. Inspired by large parks in European cities, they hoped the park would improve the lives of all city residents by providing a healthy space for moral recreation, but they also wanted a place to accommodate elegant carriage drives and to reflect the cultural greatness of the city.

In their history of Central Park, Rosenzweig and Blackmar argue that a desire to displace poor uptown residents was a major influence on the decision of where to locate the park. In the 1840s one observer described the area as a “waste” filled with “poor and wretched people of every race and color and nationality” who “had no regular occupation,”  and described alleged sexual contact between blacks and whites in terms of outrage.

Maybe the park designers just didn’t see the settlements as worth obstructing the creation of a grand, idealized, and perfectly rectangular reflection of American culture and its ability to tame nature but still benefit from natural surroundings.

Central Park Hills

After a series of political battles, mostly among factions of the wealthy with various interests, construction began in Central Park, a project that was seen as creating numerous jobs that were needed in the economic downturn. Through the power of eminent domain, the city removed Seneca village in 1857.

Although Seneca Village landowners did receive more money for their property than they had purchased it for, the community life they had built was gone as the residents scattered.

In 2011 the Seneca Village Project made its first archeological excavations of the village grounds. The stories of the Seneca Village residents still have much to teach us about life in New York in the mid-nineteenth century.

Disputes over how to use the land continued long after Seneca village was gone. The park is not only government land intended for the recreational benefit of the public in a densely-populated city, but is also a symbol of prestige. Numerous issues were bound to come up as the park was managed through the years and became a social space. Central Park can also be used to understand how the city was made and how the public – numerous people with divergent interests – have been served.


Population: Roy Rosenzweig and Elizabeth Blackmar, The Park and the People: A History of Central Park, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1992. 60, 64-65.

Establishment of village and demographics: Seneca Village Project Website, Columbia University. Accessed December 19, 2012. Index and History.

Buildings: The Park and the People, 68-70.

Croton Receiving Reservoir (Lower Reservoir): The Park and the People, 439.

Motivations to build park: The Park and the People, 30,54.

Negative views of residents: The Park and the People, 63, 67.

Job creation in construction: The Park and the People, 57.

Location: Interactive Map, Seneca Village Project.

Eminent domain and removal: The Park and the People, 59. Index, Seneca Village Project.

Compensation of Seneca Village landowners: The Park and the People, 89.

Archeological Excavation: The Excavations, Seneca Village Project.

Head First Video: Johnson Trolley Line

We’re working on a video where we travel to the grounds of the old Stelton Ferrer Colony with a graduate of the unique school that once anchored the community. The video is currently in the editing process, and we’re working with an experienced producer to give it some extra awesomeness!

Right now you can see how Ryan found an old trolley line between Princeton and Trenton.

Towers, Cabins, and Castle

The Ramapo Mountains are a rugged line of peaks and ridges rising about 1000 feet above sea level in northern New Jersey and southern New York. The Precambrian metamorphic rock that they are made of has lasted more than 600 million years while the softer rocks around them eroded away.

The rugged Ramapo terrain prevented much early development, and the mountains have served countless people looking for a break from the more crowded parts of North Jersey. On Sunday, Darian and Helen went to explore some of the structures they left behind.

We parked at the upper Skyline Drive lot. That’s the one farther from I-287, because who wants to start a hike right off the interstate? We headed west on the short white and red trail, made a right on the Cannonball, and a quick left on the Castle Point Trail.

The trail soon reaches an exposed rock, where you can see a stone tower rising from the next hill. It looks cool in the fog too.

Tower in Fog

As you come up to the tower, you might think this is the castle that the trail name and the map are referring to. But more is to come.

Hiking to Tower

This tower once housed a water cistern.

Van Slyke Tower

It’s difficult to tell if there used to be stairs or a ladder to the roof, but it would be silly if there wasn’t.

Inside Tower At Van Slyke

There are still pipes sticking out of the tower.

Pipe from Tower at Van Slyke Castle

Then, the stone ruins of the main building are ahead.

Grounds of Foxcroft, the Van Slyke Castle

The concrete thing in the ground was once a swimming pool with a very steep floor.

Van Slyke Pool

And now we arrive at the ruins of Foxcroft, which today is often called the Van Slyke Castle. Foxcroft was constructed from 1908 to 1909 for William Porter, a stockbroker, and his wife Ruth. It was made of rock taken from surrounding ridges and transported by mule and oxen. An account of the house from when it was inhabited describes the first floor as containing a living room, an “unusually large reception hall,” a dining room, breakfast room, kitchen and service rooms. The second floor had multiple balconies, “four master bedrooms and three baths, also servants’ rooms and bath.” There was also a garage and a chauffeur’s cottage with multiple rooms.

Van Slyke Mansion - Foxcroft

Getting inside gives you a sense of how extensive this place was.

Van Slyke Furnace

Looking out a window you can see a tower on the hill to the east. We’ll get there later.

Ryecliff Tower From Foxcroft

Just a few years after Foxcroft was built, William Porter died in a vehicle accident. In 1913 Ruth married a prominent lawyer, Warren Van Slyke. Warren died in the 1920s but Ruth continued to live at Foxcroft until her death in 1940. The property changed ownership several times in the 1950s and the abandoned mansion became a hangout for local youth. Sometime around 1960 the house was burned in a fire generally attributed to vandalism.

On a clear day, the New York City skyline is visible when looking southeast from the ridge. Today was not a clear day, but the view looking south over Ramapo Lake was nice.

Ramapo Lake From Castle Point

Castle point is a popular local hike, and there are some pictures of the ruins online. But not many people seem to think of climbing down the outer retaining wall.

Which is probably why there aren’t many pictures of the tank room online.

Van Slyke Tank

A hole in the side of the retaining wall leads to a brick room with a big rusty tank in it. I don’t know what it contained, but my guess would be heating oil. There is nothing behind the tank besides a space large enough to walk through.

Whenever hiking, take care to leave things at least as good as you found them so other people have the opportunity to enjoy them like you did. The same goes for exploring ruins, which are sometimes fragile. Watch your feet and head too!

After descending from the castle, we headed to the tower on Rye Cliff.

Rye Cliff Tower - Ramapo Mountains

The tower is surrounded by private property, so it’s best to stick to trails and roads for this part.

Tower and Shed

North of Skyline Drive, the Ramapo wilderness contains more trails and more ruins. If you’re up for venturing off the trail, following creeks can lead to interesting things.

In this case, picturesque Lake Tamarack.

Lake Tamarack - Ramapo Mountains

Leaving things at least as good as you found them requires even more attention once you get off trail.  Unfortunately, the ground near the shelter in the center of the picture was littered with broken bottles.

Camp Tamarack was a Boy Scout property purchased by Bergen County, so presumably the structures around Lake Tamarack were part of the camp.

Along the shores of the lake are the remains of a collapsed building.

Lakeside Rubble

And on a hill just northwest of the lake is another collapsed cabin.

Wrecked Cabin

These finds bring up an interesting question: what separates garbage from artifacts? The easy answer would be that artifacts are useful, but use is subjective. If ruins are likely to add to the visitor’s experience, then should they stay where they are or be put on display somewhere else? Should they be studied by professionals or left to be pondered by amateurs?

And another thing to contemplate: if your cabin is in the middle of the woods, would anyone know if you lost your mind and started throwing teapots around?


All in all, an excellent hike. Happy adventuring!


Daniel Chazin, Editor. New Jersey Walk Book, 2nd Edition. Mahwah, NJ: New York – New Jersey Trail Conference, 2004. Pages 35-37, 67 (geology); 83 (Tamarack); 92-93 (Castle Point Trail and Foxcroft).

Discussion with Rich Moon, Nov 30, 2012. (History of Foxcroft)

Foxcroft construction and layout information is from a photocopied section of a book found in the Wanaque Library archives (“Foxcroft: The Estate of Mrs. Warren Clark Van Slyke, 36-41). According to Rich Moon, the book was Attractive Homes of New Jersey, probably published in 1929. This is most likely accurate; a book fitting that description can be found on the Chicago Rare Books site

Highlands Sites in New Jersey, Geology of National Parks, USGS. Retrieved Dec 5, 2012.

The Map we used is North Jersey Trails, Trail Map 115, New York – New Jersey Trail Conference, 9th Edition, 2009.

Marriage Certificate of Warren C. Van Slyke and Ruth A. Porter (copy), Aug 7, 1913. Collegiate Reformed Protestant Dutch Church of the City of New York. Rich Moon collection.

Physiographic Provinces of New Jersey, New Jersey Geological Survey Information Circular, Retrieved Dec 5, 2012

Those with an interest in the human history of the Ramapo Mountains should also be aware of the region’s mining history (north of the area covered here), as well as the Ramapo Mountain Indians and their struggles for recognition and against toxic waste dumping in abandoned mines.

Exploring History.